Placing an economic value on a species

Knut the polar bear


JEREMY HOBSON: There are 15,000 polar bears in Canada. But there are no specific laws in Canada to protect polar bears. Now the Canadian government wants to make the polar bear a threatened species. And to do that, it wants to ask the question how much is a polar bear worth?

Here's the BBC's Lee Carter in Toronto.

Lee Carter: Right now, polar bears in Canada are only valued in commercial terms, such as the value of their fur and their appeal to tourists.

Mary Taylor is working with Canada's Environment Department to figure out how best to conserve the iconic predator. She says a broader value needs to be put on it.

Mary Taylor: The existence value -- what's the value of having this species now and in the future? We also look at the bequest value -- what's the value for future generations? So we're looking at a range of values, values even beyond those in the marketplace.

The method Taylor is describing is called Total Economic Value. TEV is increasingly used in environmental economics. It takes into account the obvious and less apparent benefits of keeping a species around. A previous TEV study found the total value of an African elephant to be more than $4,000.

Vic Adamowicz is an environmental economist with the University of Alberta. He says this approach is necessary.

Vic Adamowicz: I think one of the challenges is if we don't try and do these kinds of assessments, then often these species have implicitly a zero value placed on them. The value of improving these habitats, improving the quality of the species don't get measured in economic terms.

There is a debate both inside and outside Canada about whether the polar bear is endangered. There's no doubt that in recent years, the Arctic ice the bears depend on has been melting, blamed by some environmentalists on climate change.

Paul Irngaut is the wildlife manager at Nunavut Tunngavik, a land claims group. He says the study is a waste of time and the priority should be preserving the bears' shrinking habitat.

Paul Irngaut: Why are they putting a value on polar bears? Is it because of climate change? If that's the case, then say it -- and take steps to deal with the climate change issue.

And while there may be disagreements about how accurate these studies are, governments are under increasing pressure to produce more of them to find the value of animals and ecosystems under threat.

In Toronto, Canada, I'm Lee Carter for Marketplace.

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i would put a value of $5 million on each bear. and that is low. they are valuable to earth and to quality of life.

Listening (as always) this morning to Iowa Public Radio, I grieved at the "mammon-trap" we humans have created for ourselves. The ethnocentric bent towards converting all things into dollar increments is horrifying. I envision trying to explain this concept (this mentality) to early Natives in North America; the puzzling look they'd likely have as they tried to process such a notion. For them, God created the polar bear, and there cannot be a market value; for them it would be analogous to placing a dollar value to oxygen. But we have so normalized the concept that we talk about it, just as we see herein: casually! The ideals of priceless is too large, let's give it a number. Indeed, it is the devaluation of life, which creates the mentality, and allows also for humans to die in caves extracting coal.

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